Since I’m on a Marla Frazee kick, I have to recommend All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and a Caldecott Honor book a few years back (Beach Lane, $17.99). The text is sparse and crisp — “Rock, stone, pebble, sand // Body, shoulder, arm, hand. A moat to dig // a shell to keep // All the world is wide and deep” — and verily dances across each page. It’s Frazee’s illustrations that really make this book, though. As usual, she captures the movement of play, from families at the beach to gardening, tree climbing, cooking, and running through the rain. The movement through the different times of the day, and even the different weather patterns of summer (yes it most certainly can be sunny enough to go to the beach in the morning and then start raining in the afternoon — at least where I live!) are a delightful homage to environmental cadences and rhythms. All the World is a nice snuggling, going to bed book for younger children, who will find comfort in the words and pictures.
I’m slowly working my way through the recent ALA Youth Media Award winners. I’m moderately embarrassed at how many winners had completely escaped my notice. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, $17.99) received both a Prinz honor and the Stonewall prize so it immediately went to the top of my list of must reads. Of course, as any bookseller knows, it becomes difficult to get your hands on winning books (unless you already have them in stock) after the award show since all the *other* booksellers are all scrambling to get the books in their store. Insider info: booksellers totally watch the awards with the order window open so that they can put in requests as the winners are announced. Seriously. One minute late and you don’t get any of the books : ) Anyway, I put in a request for Aristotle and Dante with our store owner and waited for the book to arrive. This past weekend I was pulling books for our annual sale, and the book was on our sale list! What!?!?! Not only had the book arrived and I hadn’t noticed, but it accidentally made it on the sale list! My special order! I was shocked. SHOCKED. And thrilled because now I could finally read the book. All’s well, so they say.
As for the book. YES! yes, yes, yes. So good. Narrated by Aristotle, the story chronicles the friendship of two boys who meet at the pool in El Paso during the summer of 1987. Aristotle, who can’t swim, is floating around thinking about how most high-school guys are tools. My word, not his; it is 1987. Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Naturally, if your name is Aristotle and you meet a kid whose name is Dante, you are going to have to be friends with him. Fortunately, Dante isn’t a tool. He’s smart, well-read, funny, thoughtful, artistic. I want to be friends with him myself. Aristotle and Dante debate what it means to be a real Mexican. Dante teaches Aristotle about literature. Aristotle saves Dante’s life. Dante’s family moves away for a year.
Aristotle struggles with the silence surrounding his brother’s absence, that his parents refuse to discuss. He struggles with understanding his father, back from Vietnam, who can’t seem to talk about anything. He struggles with his own nightmares. He has a great relationship with his mother, which is one of the things I really loved about this book. Parents in YA novels are often absent or horrible, and that sort of makes sense from a teen’s perspective. But in this book, both Dante’s and Aristotle’s parents are lovely. Not perfect. Not idealized. But lovely, supportive, and smart. Smart enough to know their sons even better than their sons do. I respected both sets of parents in this story and appreciated that Sáenz gave all four of their characters so much depth without distracting from the two boys.
Although Dante is more confident and outgoing than Aristotle, he has his own struggles, namely his feelings for Aristotle. I’m a fan of narratives that rotate between different characters and in some ways I would have loved this story to move between Dante and Aristotle so I could have heard more of Dante’s thoughts. But of the two, it’s Aristotle who struggles with expressing himself. We need him to narrate because otherwise he’d be as much of a mystery to us as he is to Dante. Besides, he has a biting outlook on life that I really liked: “Reading my own words embarrassed the hell out of me. I mean, what a pendejo. I had to be the world’s biggest loser, writing about hair, and stuff about my body. No wonder I stopped keeping a journal. It was like keeping a record of my own stupidity. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to remind myself what an asshole I was?” He has a soft side though: “My mother and father held hands. I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand”. I bet you could, too, especially when your best friend is Dante.
I buy my god-baby books for her birthday. Fortunately she still enjoys reading, so I have not yet become ‘the worst god-mother ever’ as predicted by one of my non-reading friends. My god-baby is actually 9 so not technically a baby, but I like the title. As much fun as it can be to buy books you’ve read and loved, doing so can sometimes put too much pressure on the recipient so this year I decided to buy books I hadn’t read, books I picked out specifically for her. My boss recommended A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (Sandpiper, $6.99). Zoe, the main character, has musical aspirations, and I thought that would be good choice since the god-baby’s mother plays the clarinet and the god-baby in question takes piano lessons. (Sidebar: maybe some time I should write about all the times I spent at band and orchestra rehearsals in high school despite the fact that I wasn’t ever in the band or an orchestra — the things we do for our friends.) Although I never heard the final pronouncement, A Crooked Kind of Perfect was the first of her birthday books that the god-baby started reading and her initial reaction was enthusiastic — melodramatic, but enthusiastic: “I looooooooved the books you picked out! Thank you soooooooooo much!” kids. gotta love ’em. gotta not take ’em too seriously.
So now it’s my turn to read the books and yes, I did a great job picking them out (with help, of course), because A Crooked Kind of Perfect is kind of delightful. Zoe wants to be a pianist, more specifically she’d like to be a child prodigy on the piano. What she gets is an organ, more specifically the The Perfectone D-60. Pianists play at Carnegie Hall. Organists compete at the Peform-O-Rama organ competition. Zoe wants her two parents to be at her first competition. Zoe has a workaholic mother and an agoraphobic father. Zoe wants her best friend to remember that they are best friends and not spend so much time with Joella. Zoe gets Wheeler Diggs following her home after school. Zoe wants perfection. She finds a crooked kind of perfect.
I’ve been debating with myself whether it’s worth writing about a book that I didn’t like, given that the point of this blog is to make book recommendations. Well in this particular case, I read a book last night that I have actually recommended on several occasions. We do that sometimes, recommend books we haven’t read. I usually try to be honest about it. “Have you read it?” “Well I’ve read the back.”
The book in question is Liz Kessler’s A Year Without Autumn (Candlewick, $6.99). I wanted to like this book, not least because it has a great cover. It also has an interesting description. I like books with a little time travel, especially when it’s handled well (see Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me). I also thought this book looked like it would be a good step forward for fans of Emily Windsnap. It is a little more serious, has complex themes, and in general just looks really good. But it was boring. There is a lot of unnecessary description of things that had little to do with the story. And I don’t think the girls sound very realistic. There is something about their conversation that feels stilted to me. Many of the word choices seemed particularly British, so I assumed the whole time I was reading that the book takes place in Britain. At the end, however, it becomes clear that the girls are supposed to be American. By that time I was just confused because they really didn’t sound like American pre-teens. Anyway, the book has an interesting premise and would probably even generate some thought-provoking questions about fate, friendship, and what you can and cannot control in your life. I just wish that there was more to help me connect with the Jenni and Autumn or at least care what happens to them. I don’t think I’ll start steering people away from it (I do that sometimes, too), but I’m taking it off my list of books to recommend.